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He Drops the F-Bomb, She Drops the F-Bomb

Perceptions of men and women who swear.

Key points

  • A researcher examined gender differences in frequency, acceptability, and motivation of vulgarity, profanity, and derogatory language usage.
  • The researcher suggested English-speaking men and women are increasingly using profanity in a range of public and private settings.
  • Society often views women who swear as having bad manners, a limited vocabulary, seeking attention, and unprofessional.
Dans cartoons
Source: Dans cartoons

The Supreme Court handed down an opinion that contained, explicitly and otherwise, some interesting information: Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. In this case, Mahanoy Area High School student B. L. failed to make the school's varsity cheerleading squad.

While visiting a local convenience store over the weekend, B. L. posted two images on Snapchat, a smartphone social media application that allows users to share temporary images with selected friends. B. L.'s posts expressed frustration with the school and the school's cheerleading squad, and one contained vulgar language and gestures: "Fuck school, fuck softball, fuck cheer, and fuck everything."

When school officials learned of the posts, they suspended B. L. from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year. After unsuccessfully seeking to reverse that punishment, B. L. and her parents sought relief in federal court, arguing, among other things, that punishing B. L. for her speech violated the First Amendment.

Then 14 years old, Brandi Levy was rejected by her school's cheerleading coach and, therefore, as troubled as you would expect a 14-year-old to be.

The message came to the attention of the coach, who suspended her from cheerleading for one year. She and her parents appealed to the school administrators, and she apologized, but they did not relent. So with the help of the ACLU, her parents sued. The case eventually came to the Supreme Court, which ruled 8-1 in her favor. Clarence ("Who put the pubic hairs on my Coke can?") Thomas was the lone dissenter.

Is there a double standard for vulgarity? Some argue when a man uses vulgar language, it can intensify his concern and enhance his credibility. However, when a woman uses vulgar language, it is seen as unfavorable. There seems to be greater latitude for boys to act up and behave outside acceptable boundaries. Yet, girls and women are expected to maintain the rules and act within acceptable boundaries.

In an academic study titled, "The Gender Differences in Perceived Obscenity of Vulgar, Profane and Derogatory Language Usage" among U.S. University Students, the researcher suggested English-speaking men and women are increasingly using vulgarity (explicit and offensive references to sex or bodily functions), profanity ("swear words") and derogatory language (terms used to insult others) in a range of private and public settings. The objective was to examine gender differences in frequency, acceptability, and motivation of vulgarity, profanity, and derogatory language usage.

With the Access Hollywood video of Donald Trump and the "This Pussy Fights Back" response by women, societal standards toward gender-specific language and appropriate conversation topics have become center-stage in our society. The concept that "boys will be boys" normalizes vulgar conversations between men, whereas women who "swear like sailors" are seen by society as unprofessional, have bad manners, limited vocabulary, and to be seeking attention or "trying to be like one of the boys."

Although they aim to make the perspectives of so-called "unladylike" women obsolete and invisible, such stigmas may end up doing the complete opposite by attracting more attention. According to the researcher, that attention often translates into shock, not properly understanding her argument. On the flip side, when men use profanity or speak vulgar topics, no one is outraged because it's just "locker room talk."

The research examined the disparities between taboo discussion subjects and language for males and females through quantitative data from surveying over 400 students and qualitative data acquired from interviews with ten students. The perceptual survey asked students to rate the obscenity of various words and phrases and whether such a level is affected by a university male or female speaker.

The research study revealed that college students in the study largely agreed upon reasons to curse, levels of the obscenity of various situations, the most frequently used curse words, curse words to refrain from using, and the fact that there are no cursing words that are more acceptable for men than women. Males and females in this study had similar perceptions of what was considered obscene and what was not. However, a woman's place is not to be vulgar.

In January 2019, at an event celebrating progressive women in Congress, that's precisely what happened. Rashida Tlaib, the country's first Palestinian-American congresswoman, told a story about what her congressional win meant to her son. She told the crowd, "…when your son looks at you and says: 'Momma, look, you won. Bullies don't win.' And I said, 'Baby, they don't.' Because we're going to go in there, and we're going to impeach the motherf*cker."

Tlaib's word choice lit up social media almost immediately. Many applauded her boldness and agreed with her. Across party lines, people spoke out against Tlaib. On Fox News, Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) called Tlaib's use of the swear word "disgusting" and "deplorable."

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) told CNN, "I don't really like that kind of language." A former campaign strategist for Dick Cheney, Matthew Dowd, wrote an op-ed asserting that Tlaib had lowered the bar for public discourse. Trump himself called Tlaib's remarks "disgraceful."

At a news conference, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-C.A.) asked, "Is this the behavior that we are going to find with this new majority party in Congress?"

In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney famously told Senator Pat Leahy, on the Senate floor, to go f*ck himself. Cheney later recounted how many people enjoyed that moment and referred to it as "sort of the best thing I ever did." This is a perfect illustration of men exercising bravado when they use vulgarity.

In 2015, Mike Huckabee asserted that women, who swear, particularly in professional spaces, are "trashy."

In 2016, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said during a speech, "Has he [Trump] kept his promises? F* C.K. no. If we are not helping people, we should go the f* C.K. home." For this, she was labeled "unhinged" by ultra-conservative media.

Women incorporating vulgar language may be unsettling to men who are used to always having the loudest voice in the room. Maybe by using foul language, she is trying to level the playing field with men.


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